Focus on Oregon Pinot Noir

Two thousand three is a mixed bag for Oregon pinot noir, with a distinctly superripe, even roasted character, to a sizable percentage of the wines. Pinot drinkers who place a premium on finesse will have to cover a lot of ground before finding much satisfaction with 2003, but there are nonetheless some admirable examples to be found, mostly from cooler vineyards. In contrast, 2004, although also a ripe year, has produced a number of finely wrought wines that will appeal to fans of a more classic, graceful pinot style.

As a consequence of a long, dry growing season and very hot weather up to and through the 2003 harvest, many wines display ripe, even pruney character. Such wines seldom improve with cellaring and I suspect that the majority of Oregon pinot fans will be drinking up their ‘03s over the next few years. I know I will. Ken Wright pointed out that 2003 in the Willamette Valley set records for the hottest June, July, August and September since 1967, which is another way of saying the hottest ever recorded in the history of Oregon’s wine industry. "It was 98 degrees on September 27," said John Thomas, "and a lot of people panicked and picked in the heat, thinking that their grapes were starting to dehydrate. But after most late-season hot spells here, it tends to cool off before rains arrive, allowing at least another week for the grapes to reach real maturity.” Thomas waited, and picked his grapes on October 5. At their best, the 2003s are ripe, fleshy and powerful, with darker fruit character than their 2002 and 2004 siblings. These are wines best suited to richer, more full-flavored cuisine than those bookend vintages, and I found that serving them at cellar temperature helped to mitigate some of the warmer, more roasted qualities I tasted in so many bottles.

As for 2004, the season got off to a depressing start: a frigid January and a wet, cold spring resulting in a poor fruit set paved the way for a very small crop. But a warm growing season followed, and cool evening temperatures helped the grapes maintain healthy acidity. Aside from a storm in late August and some hail and rain in mid-September, the Willamette Valley enjoyed benign late-summer conditions. The end of September brought dry weather and gentle winds, allowing the final ripening to occur at a leisurely pace. These conditions reminded Bethel Heights winemaker Terry Casteel of past years like 1983, 1988, 1989 and 1990, fine vintages all. "The 2004s show true pinot character," says Jim Anderson of Patricia Green Cellars. "There is a very nice balance of fruit intensity, acidity and tannin." Brad McLeroy of Ayres Vineyard describes 2004 as a pinot lover’s vintage. "The wines are really elegant and will age well," he believes. The down side—and isn’t there always one when it comes to pinot noir?—is that production levels are extremely, even painfully, low. Most vineyards produced less than two tons of fruit per acre, and in many cases under one ton, with the result that quantities were off by as much as 75%. At Soter Vineyards, James Cahill and Tony Soter harvested so little fruit from their Beacon Hill vineyard that the entire production (aside from fruit harvested in mid-September for the sparkling wine and rosé) was blended with the young-vines fruit from their new Mineral Springs Ranch vineyard for a single tasty pinot noir called North Valley.

A healthy, often fanatical local following ensures that many of the best pinots never leave Oregon, so I encourage pinot fans to contact wineries directly if they wish to get their hands on specific bottlings. The cellar-door trade thrives in Oregon, for better or worse, meaning that perseverance will be required to secure many of the top wines. But in a vintage like 2004, your efforts should be rewarded.